Foreign Policy

Who Will Lose the War in Iran?

Not Bush. And That Might Be a Problem

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While it is almost certainly more crucial to America's future than, say, immigration, the question of what will happen between the United States and Iran in the next year or so is of surprisingly little public concern. Pollwatcher Stu Rothenberg tells me it's a complete nonissue in this year's midterm congressional elections. As for 2008's presidential race, well, what might be seen as the bellicosity of the Bush administration's Vulcans is drowned out by the mighty bellowing against Iran of prospective Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Sadly but not surprisingly, the American people, who when asked aren't excited about the prospect of war in Iran (only 13 percent said they were for such action in one recent poll), may never get the chance to vote for a president who shares that distaste.

Of course, the whole point could be moot by the time the White House battle gears up. This week the tensions between the U.S. and Iran over its uranium enrichment program seem destined either to boil over or to cool down immensely.

Yesterday, it was announced that a package of incentives will be offered to Iran to give up its nuke program by the previously-at-loggerheads team of the U.S., China, Russia, and three European nations. It's a pretty quick coming to fruition (we'll soon see how palatable that fruit is) after 27 years without official diplomatic contact, of a plan by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice wants the U.S. to join in with the multilateral negotiations over Iran's nuke program—though only if Iran scuttles its uranium program first. (They have not leapt up eagerly to meet this demand.) It seems as if the bruited attack of the GOP realists on the Iran policy front is paying off.

U.S./Iran gamesmanship over the past months provides evidence for any outcome you care to guess at. We can presume that Ahmadinejad doesn't relish a U.S. attack, hence such seeming outreaches as his notorious letter to Bush. But then again, it could just be that he's such an apocalyptic millenarian twelfth imam-in-waiting freakazoid that he does want to start a nuclear war, or at least doesn't care if he causes one. The U.S. has made the concession of entering negotiations and offering this week's incentives, while of course keeping active invasion plans on the table. And the State Department and Pentagon are both redoubling efforts to undermine the Iranian regime domestically—a regime currently being rocked by underreported unrest by its Azeri minority.

The L.A. Times report on the new regime-disruption efforts says U.S.-based Iranians against the current regime "were left disappointed by their first look at the new campaign and by the fact that officials had not begun distributing money to exile groups." That's great news, if it holds up; overenthusiastic exile groups are most likely to push untrustworthy propaganda on the American government and its people in their zeal to see their homeland liberated from the mullahs.

Creating further disquiet for those hoping for a peaceful solution to the Iranian conundrum, the Pentagon's fresh anti-regime shop is chockablock with vets of its Office of Special Plans, which brought us Ahmed Chalabi and a zeal for war in Iraq that produced recommendations and declarations that proved less than reliable.

If the Chalabi manqués of the Iranian dissident and émigré world get their way, the potential costs are large. Iran, through its control of the Straits of Hormuz (through which 40 percent of the world's oil passes), could cripple world oil supplies, leading to $200-a-barrel oil prices. And in war games conducted for The Atlantic in 2004, as summed up recently by Charles Peña in the American Conservative, "retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner identified 14 locations for Iran's nuclear-related facilities but developed a pre-emptive strike target list of 125 nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities with approximately 300 aim points—20 of which would require penetrating weapons or bunker busters." Col. Gardiner has recently been saying that U.S. military operations in Iran have already clandestinely begun.

Peña's American Conservative article presents a sobering account of the ways a preemptive attack on Iran could turn out badly. The litany includes Shehab ballistic missile attacks galore on American troops in Iraq and on Israel; an all-gloves-off approach to Iranian-fomented chaos in Iraq; and very messy conflicts with Russia and China. Also, if we really really really believe we are vulnerable to Islamic terrorism and that our jihadist enemies are ready, willing, and able to perform acts of unmitigated horror on our homeland, a full-on assault on Iran could unleash the power of, say, Iran's Hizbollah lackeys on American soil.

Certainly, forces within the administration are aware of such dangers involved in war on Iran. But it seems the downsides of waging war don't provide enough of a deterrent for the decisionmakers.

What, really, would the Bush administration have to lose in an all-out attempt to score an unambiguous, heroic victory in Iran (now that they've been denied one in Iraq?) Since Iran is out and proud about its uranium, and about believing it should have the right to possess nuclear weapons that others have, no "were there or weren't there WMDs?" embarassment is likely in any Iran war aftermath. The administration already has a pretty clear case to make that they would be preemptively taking out a menace to America, Israel, and the world.

Given a natural tendency to rally round the flag, even disasters such as $200-a-barrel oil can be spun as an incentive to make sure we fly Old Glory over Tehran, or what's left of it, all the faster. Certainly, in the game of balancing risks and benefits in the negotiating dance with Iran, we have the upper hand. The Bush administration is, sensibly, not acting as if the destruction of American cities is one of the risks it would be taking in attacking Iran. That's the glory, to them, of the "preemptive strike" doctrine—it makes declaring war tantalizingly low-risk to our domestic health and prosperity.

Studying the tea leaves of the neocon journals that held such apparent sway over Iraq decisionmaking gives those hoping for peace in Iran reason to despair. In the pages of Commentary, we find a wary declaration from Edward Luttwak that we don't necessarily have to start a war with Iran now, because given the nature of their progress toward a bomb, there will be time to start the war later. Simultaneously, in the Weekly Standard, Hillel Fradkin warns us that we must get tough, in that weird language common to war-thumpers that doesn't outright state "we have to blow these people up, and soon" but suggests it with every space between the lines:

[L]iberal democrats [must] declare that they have no intention of abandoning their way of life and see no need to do so, since they are fully prepared to defend it and because that way of life provides the resources—political, economic, and military—to defend itself.

It is necessary to inform Ahmadinejad and his radical allies that they are in for a real fight. This may not suffice to lead them to question their fundamental assumption and inspiration that we are on the run.

Since nothing we have done so far has said that we surrender and welcome our new Islamic overlords, I'm not sure how this could be interpreted—especially since it comes after a declaration that even a military victory over Iran would "not end ideological and other kinds of warfare" with the Islamic world—as anything other than a call for war to the finish.

War with Iran, beyond the obvious yet not-enough-mentioned costs in innocent human lives, is unlikely to settle the problem it is predicated on solving. The nuclear genii are out of the bottle, and deterrence against sinister regimes has worked in the past to keep nukes that do exist from being used. It is no slam-dunk case that an Iranian nuke equals Armageddon—or that any effort on our part, short of turning the nation into glass, would guarantee they never get one.

The conflicting forces and conflicting signals at play right now make bold declarations about whether the U.S./Iranian dance will conclude with economic aid or bombing raids nonsense. But it is disturbing to note how the incentives to think three times and more about the risks of war don't weigh so heavily on those who will make the decision. True believer lame duck Bush may well honestly think that a Mullahless Middle East will be a real step toward a stable democracy there, now that Iraq isn't looking so hot; it could the key to his legacy, the legacy that awaits him all too soon. Whatever bad things happen because of a war with Iran, they aren't apt to screw up the lives of the people starting it on our end too much. If Bush and his boys turn out to be wrong, well, there's always the lucrative private sector. At least in America, if not in Iran. Or so we can hope.